Beneath the rule of men entirely great,
The pen is mightier than the sword. ― Edward Bulwer-Lytton
Most people have never seen Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s famous quote in its entirety. Until I looked it up, I never knew he had qualified the famous second line with a warning about the type of government necessary for it to be true. I looked it up to thrill you, my readers, with some historical trivia before I went on to dazzle you by proving the author wrong. But he isn’t wrong at all.
Mr. Bulwer-Lytton wrote these famous words in the middle of the 19th century, a time of relative peace in the world, a peace preserved by Great Britain’s superior military technology. Mr. Bulwer-Lytton was an Englishman. He believed the world in his time was ruled by “men entirely great,” that is, upper class Englishmen like him, whose civilized wisdom allowed the pen to increase dramatically in might.
Because we’ve enjoyed a long domestic peace and a tradition of press freedom, most Americans today take the unmodified second line of Bulwer-Lytton’s quotation as absolute truth. In doing so we miss the point. It is only under the benevolent rule of great men that the pen is mightier than the sword. In all other circumstances, those with the swords make the rules. A man with a pen had better have something else up his sleeve if he wants to defy a man with a sword. A man with a sword can take all the pens from all the scriveners in Christendom if he chooses to.
The modern news media has become the greatest and most naïve believer in the power of the pen. The press is so besotted with delusions of its own power that it openly promotes restricting the power of the sword to those who have the most to gain by controlling the press. The Fourth Estate vigilantly defends against any violation of the First Amendment but doesn’t believe all our rights are created equal. The same media gives almost no support to the Second Amendment, perhaps believing too much in the power of the pen, perhaps out of contempt for responsible, law-abiding, Americans with guns. Let’s consider for a moment what our country would be like if the mighty press operated under laws like those that regulate guns. Let’s imagine the First Amendment were treated like the Second.
The manufacture and import of printing equipment would be heavily regulated. All books would have a serial number. To go into the book business you would have to have a federal license. It would be a felony to sell a book if you didn’t have a license. Everyone who bought a book from a federally licensed dealer would have to fill out a form giving his name, address, personal information and the serial number of the book. You would have to submit to a criminal background check. You would have to wait five days to take possession of your book.
To buy big, heavy books (unless you were a government agent) you would have to pay a $200 tax, get fingerprinted and photographed, have your local sheriff approve your application and then wait months to receive the paperwork back from the Bureau of Ink, Paper and Binding. If you failed to pay the tax or properly complete the application and you had a big book in your possession, you would be guilty of a felony punishable by ten years in prison and a fine of $10,000.
It would be a felony (unless you work for the government) to own books that were not printed on a certain kind of paper. It would be a felony (unless you were a government agent) to own books that didn’t look a certain way, or that were too big or too small. In certain states you would be forbidden to buy more than a single book in a month. If you stored your books where your children could reach them you could lose your kids and go to prison.
It would be commonplace for government enforcement agents to break into people’s homes, confiscate their property and send them to prison for “conspiracy to violate the federal book laws.” It would not be unheard of for government agents to plant banned books in people’s homes then stage a raid and shoot the people dead and burn the property to the ground.
You think this comparison is amusing but far-fetched, but powerful books have been banned just like powerful guns have, just not with the support of the media. Books are not made “just for killing people” but neither are guns. Most guns do the job of defending the otherwise defenseless without ever killing anyone. They do so millions of times each year, though you would think it never happened to read the papers or listen to the news.
There are millions of responsible, educated, peaceful people who think there should be no more restrictions on guns than there are on books. I am one of them. James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington numbered among them also.
But any guns, O’Boyle? Surely you don’t mean howitzers, cruise missiles and nukes.
The Founders discussed that point in the Federalist Papers. They were clear the weapons available to the people should be the same weapons available to the common foot soldier. In 1790 that was muskets and light cannon — pretty much anything you could move around with a man and a horse. Not field howitzers and battleships. Today it would be machine guns, mortars, and shoulder mounted weapons — pretty much anything you could load in a pickup. Not nukes or tanks.
Until the passage of the National Firearms Act of 1934, our government understood this. Since then, the steady erosion of our civil rights has moved in lockstep with the erosion of our gun rights and the escalation of the War on Drugs. When our gun rights are gone it will be finally obvious that the power of the pen is entirely subject to the power of the sword.